The Changing Landscape of On-Site Employee Health and Safety
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, on-site construction operations have been dramatically altered. Beginning in March, many construction sites across the United States were temporarily shut down. Only essential projects were able to continue operations. As states begin to reopen their economies, projects are slowly resuming with some major changes to health and safety protocols.
As we look beyond the first wave of the virus, official health and safety recommendations have been uncertain. With primary guidance coming from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and its COVID-19 Every Worker Protection Act of 2020, states have enacted their own policies based on recorded case numbers. This has left many construction companies in a difficult situation, with a flexible approach needed to meet on-site challenges. In an effort to keep employees safe and construction sites operational, traditional health and safety guidelines must be revisited.
Updating Safety Protocols
As site owners and operators contend with new health and safety practices, it’s important to formalize a strategy to meet industry standards. Although each site has individual demands, with so many members of the industry facing similar challenges, knowledge sharing will be an essential first step to new protocols.
At the minimum, new protocols should align with guidelines set out by OSHA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and state authorities. Although meeting industry standards is pivotal to reopening, construction managers need to understand that all sites are unique. Depending on the project and the site, the COVID-19 safety plan may need to be more restrictive to ensure employees are kept safe.
“In an effort to keep employees safe and construction sites operational, traditional health and safety guidelines must be revisited.”
The most important recommendations from the CDC — such as frequent hand washing and physical distancing — are now becoming commonplace, and should be an integral part of new health and safety protocols. Sites will need additional hand washing and sanitizing stations, physical distancing — where possible — and employee temperature screenings. Site cleaning will also need to be increased, with an emphasis on deep cleaning high touch surfaces, such as shared equipment. Ensure that all employees are aware of these new standards and are trained in how to meet requirements.
Site-specific checklists should be implemented to monitor and document compliance, as well as to trace activity. Checklists should include a log of all cleaning and sanitizing processes and when they occur. It should also include employee health forms and temperature recordings, and a log of delivery schedules and site visitors. If an employee becomes sick, this information is vital for tracing the contact points of the infected employee.
Impacts on Project Timelines
With the additional layers of safety measures in place, project timelines will inevitably be impacted. The effect of temperature checks and additional sanitization practices may be minimal, but with fewer people on-site, scheduled work may not be completed on-time and projects will take longer. Physical distancing requirements will also affect timelines, as it may be challenging for tasks to be completed concurrently. Shift work and weekend shifts can help to mitigate these delays, as there can be rotating staff throughout the day. Off-site manufacturing and pre-fabricated construction should also be considered to allow for fewer trades on site at a time.
There will also be significant impacts if anyone becomes infected with the virus. By removing staff with high temperatures and by providing adequate time off to those who have been infected, sites can avoid full closures. Closures can also affect other areas, such as supply chains and manufacturing. Continuous and open communication with partners is essential so that sites can proactively prepare for any delays that may occur as a result of temporary shutdowns or financial troubles. Keeping supply chains local will be extremely important during this time as borders may remain closed and building contingency into materials management to account for delays is paramount.
As many states contend with the second wave of the virus, more site restrictions may be required, causing projects to be shut down. Where possible, remote working should still be encouraged to allow for essential employees to remain on-site. Increased communication should also be a priority to decrease anxiety and to support knowledge sharing. Encourage regular meetings with teams to identify and mitigate risks to project timelines.
Although scheduling impacts will vary greatly based on the type of project, creative thinking is now more crucial than ever. Implementing new solutions and maximizing resources, such as construction technology, can drastically improve project timelines. First and foremost, clients should prioritize employee safety and well-being. Ensuring that all employees feel recognized and safe will go a long way in the post-pandemic construction industry.
Darren Newell is a program manager and associate of cost and project management at Linesight.